Growing up I played cards every night with my father and brother. When we started, Dad always won and we begged to stay up later for one more game. By the time I was 14 or so, Dad was keeping my brother and me up late on school nights to play "just one more hand" - so he could try to catch up. Stakes were high - we played for frozen yogurts, car privileges, and Sunday chores (there was nothing quite so satisfying as having Dad do my dishes, wash the dog, or mow the yard).
Games People Play: Hearts, Spades, Euchre, the new card game from Westwood, brings back a lot of those memories, particularly of hearts and spades. What it doesn't do, however, is provide you with competent opponents. To be sure, each of the games is called "Internet Hearts" or "Internet Euchre" so the presupposition is that you'll play over the Internet. You can play solo against the computer, but there are no varying levels of difficulty and it's shamefully easy to win - consider the solo play a tutorial.
So the Internet is the focus of gameplay - which means that there should be plenty of action on Westwood Online. The hearts lobby was decidedly empty - I went there numerous times and never so much as found a single game - but there were usually a dozen or so folks playing spades. Euchre, however, always had a game open and available and dozens of people around. And although there were some partnered teams, there was always a loose player up for a game. The same could be said of spades about half the time.
House rules were available to some extent, predominantly in spades. Bags, point limits, the ability to bid one or zero, and playing partnered or solo are all options you have. What you don't have is the option to play with three people in either spades or hearts (with the extra card either being placed face up each hand, discarded altogether, or left face down each hand and given to the person who takes the first spade/heart trick). And in euchre, there's no way to play screw the dealer, which makes the game significantly easier. With screw the dealer - which I never knew fell under the rubric of house rules; I thought it was a fundamental rule - the dealer must call trump, regardless of how bad his hand is, if everyone else passes. It forces people to play a little more aggressively. With Westwood's version of the game, if everyone passes, a new hand is dealt. Weenie...you could conceivably just pass and pass until you got the perfect hand.
Which brings me to another point - the Westwood AI plays entirely defensively. Bid nil in spades and instead of tossing out a two to force a trick on you, the AI will throw an ace to ensure that it makes its bid. And if you try to force a trick on someone going nil, the AI will still throw an ace, thwarting your plans and taking a trick at the same time. Attempting to set a player with nil is not particularly complex strategy - this is basic play that the AI is missing. Not to mention how many hearts the AI players will swallow up long after any chance of shooting the moon has been shot. Argh. But I already mentioned how bad the single player is, didn't I?
Players crashed periodically during play - oh the problems of having a T1 while others are still working from a 14.4 - but generally games ran without a hitch. There's a ranking system that assigns you a numeric rating depending on your win vs. loss ratio, following standard online gaming procedure, and if you don't have a partner, whoever's hosting the table will seat you. You can play with any combination of live/computer players in a match (don't partner yourself with the AI), so you never have to be without a game. And you can chat easily with the other players through a simple, unadorned dialogue box beneath the playing table. Be warned, however, that the same kinds of things that can temporarily stop a regular, real game can also hold up online play - I waited while partners chased dogs jumping the gate, changed diapers, and periodically got sick (he was playing euchre while home suffering from the flu).
Card games lend themselves well to Internet play, and this one is no exception. Just stay away from the solo play, and you should be entertained.